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Oklahoma senator admonished in Ensign case

WASHINGTON – Sen. Tom Coburn was a major figure in the protracted scandal stemming from the extramarital affair that former Sen. John Ensign carried on with the wife of his top aide. The episode that in the end got Coburn in hot water was a single meeting in his office.

The Senate Ethics Committee on Friday publicly admonished the Oklahoma Republican for his involvement in improper lobbying by Doug Hampton, the ex-Ensign aide seeking to make a living after his Senate career had come to a sudden end.

Coburn agreed to meet with Hampton on March 11, 2009. At the meeting, they discussed official business even though the ethics committee said Coburn knew Hampton had left the employ of the Nevada Republican and should have known Hampton was prohibited by law from lobbying senators for a year.

Following an investigation, the ethics committee said it found Coburn’s actions “were improper conduct which reflects on the Senate.”

Coburn acknowledged he should have taken more care in the contact with Hampton, whom he knew well, according to the ethics board. The meeting included representatives of Hampton client Allegiant Air, and got into issues including the Las Vegas company’s possible resumption of air service to Oklahoma.

Because it was a single meeting, and in light of Coburn’s acknowledgment, the ethics committee said it decided to issue a “qualified admonition,” which besides any public embarrassment to Coburn carries little practical impact.

“While the committee did not find that your conduct constituted actionable violations of criminal law, the committee believes that senators are obligated to meet a higher standard,” said the letter signed by the panel’s six members – three Democrats and three Republicans. The chairwoman is Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.

The Senate panel said the letter closes the case on Coburn, and it appears to cap another tentacle from the Ensign affair that captured headlines in Nevada and Washington and led ultimately to the Nevadan’s resignation from the Senate on May 3, 2011, the day before he was scheduled to be questioned by Senate investigators about the affair with Cindy Hampton and efforts to cover it up.

Doug Hampton was indicted last year on seven counts of violating the federal “revolving door” law that stipulates a one-year “cooling off” period for Senate staffers before they are permitted to lobby their old colleagues. Hampton has agreed to plead guilty to a charge in a deal with federal prosecutors expected to be made public in federal court on June 7.

Coburn, who is an obstetrician, on Friday was defiant of the ethics committee, saying through a spokesman the panel’s admonishment was unwarranted.

“Admonishing Dr. Coburn for failing to know Hampton was only seven weeks shy of ending his yearlong cooling off period is gratuitous, particularly when Dr. Coburn cooperated fully with the ethics committee and went out of his way to acknowledge that he could have taken additional steps to learn that Hampton was under the ban,” spokesman John Hart said.

Coburn’s meeting with Hampton had been mentioned in a 2009 New York Times story and was called to the Senate committee’s attention by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, an ethics watchdog group.

Melanie Sloan, the group’s executive director, criticized the panel’s admonishment as virtually meaningless, made more so by announcing it on a Friday before a holiday weekend.

“He got not even a slap on the wrist, he got a tap on the finger,” Sloan said. “They totally let Coburn off the hook.”

Coburn was a significant figure in the Ensign matter that took place in and out of public view from 2007 to 2011, according to a Senate investigative report issued last May.

An Ensign housemate in a Christian group home on Capitol Hill, Coburn tried to get the Nevada senator to end the affair, at one point pulling Ensign out of bed for an impromptu intervention.

The Oklahoman served as a go-between in negotiations between Ensign and Doug Hampton over a financial settlement that would cushion the aide’s departure from the Nevadan’s staff.

Hampton left Ensign in May 2008. Their once-close friendship had collapsed after Hampton discovered the affair between Ensign and his wife, Cynthia, that began late in 2007. In an effort to smooth Hampton’s departure, Ensign helped line up business clients for Hampton that included Allegiant Air.

A year later, when Hampton sought more money from Ensign, Coburn again served as an intermediary.

Critics have accused Coburn, a church deacon, of shielding Ensign and helping keep a ruinous scandal under wraps for as long as it was. Ensign held a press conference in June 2009 to admit he had an affair, after learning Hampton was trying to leak it to Fox News.

Coburn has defended his role, saying he saw himself as a peacemaker.

“What I did I would do exactly the same way again,” he said during a CSPAN interview last May. ” I am proud of what I did and the way I did it. And there is nothing unethical in what we did.”

In a related matter, the ethics committee on Friday also admonished the chief of staff to Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., over his relationship with Hampton.

Bret Bernhardt had multiple official contacts with Hampton, a friend he met for coffee and at Bible study, starting immediately after the Nevadan left his Senate job, the committee said.

On the same day Hampton and Allegiant officials met with Coburn, Bern-hardt set up a meeting for them with DeMint. Allegiant, which does business in South Carolina, did not ask DeMint to take any official action at the meeting, the committee said.

The ethics panel cleared DeMint, saying the senator was given no warning that Hampton was still under a no-lobby ban.

Wesley Denton, a DeMint spokesman, said Bernhardt remains in his job.

“The committee made clear that our office was never asked and never took any official action on this company’s behalf,” Denton said. “Our office has always adhered to the highest ethical standards and Mr. Bernhardt continues to serve with honor and integrity.”

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault@stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760. Follow him on Twitter @STetreaultDC.

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